03 Jul The Carretera Austral (Chile) – Off the Beaten Track
Route 7 Carretera Austral (Chile)
Alex Burridge – South America Travel Centre
The Carretera Austral is perhaps the most beautiful yet least known major road in all of South America. It spans approximately 1200km from Puerto Montt in the North to Villa O’Higgins in the South. Or put another way from the Southern end of the Lakes Region to the Aisen Region of Patagonia. Along its length you will wonder at many amazing landscapes; lakes, mountains, rivers, glaciers, forests, ice fields and volcanoes.
It is an area that few Australians have yet to discover. Before I go too far into this article about this beautiful region it is appropriate to set the scene; The Carreterra Austral is for the major part a dirt road, continually being graded and kept in reasonably good condition. That said stretches of bumpy and corrugated road should be expected. The average safe speed is probably 60-70kmh. If it hasn’t rained for a reasonable period of time then it will be dusty. And now that’s said let’s look at what this region offers.
I joined the Carretera Austral somewhere near the middle by taking a 1 and half hour flight from Santiago to Balmaceda in the Aisen region. From here I set out in a Toyota Hilux (if considering a self-drive you need something with reasonable clearance and strength and experience of driving on unmade roads – and for many of our clients we’ll organise a driver/guide as well as the appropriate vehicel) and not long after enter into the Reserva Nacional de Cerro Castillo. Cerro Castillo ‘Castle Mountain’ gains its name from the turrets and spires of a mountain hidden from view until well into the park. So far the journey is on good tarmac, but not for much longer. Here they say that’s where the driving becomes more ‘interesting’ – and as long as you take reasonable care it’s not too challenging.
The landscape is ever changing, upon leaving the Ibanez River valley you cross a pass leading to Lago General Carrera – which would have to be one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. Its colour continually changes depending on the wind and cloud cover; one book I read describes the colour as ‘a breathtaking, heartbreaking turquoise’ – which is about right. The area near to Puerto Tranquillo is where I based myself for the next 3 days.
The accommodation here is definitely rustic; charming log cabins, warm with wonderful views – very much in keeping with this remote and beautiful region. The service is excellent and your host is on hand to discuss the many and varied options for discovering the area, here are just four of the many options;
1. Marble Caves
A 30 minute boat trip or a slightly longer kayaking trip, takes you to the wonderfully coloured and exquisitely shaped ‘Marble caves’. First thought to have been created by wave action it’s now understood the caves have been created by a chemical reaction as opposed to simple wave erosion. Whatever the cause the result is a thing of beauty, particularly when the turquoise blue waters of the lake are lit up by the sun’s rays.
2. Exploradores Glacier
The great mass of ice that descends from Mount San Valentín, the highest mountain in Patagonia (4,058m) is the north-eastern part of Northern Ice Fields is known as the Exploradores Glacier. It is a massive valley glacier at an altitude that ranges between 180 and 2,000 meters above sea level. It’s one of the few glaciers in the region that has not yet retreated; that said it is losing mass (depth). The glacier has a total length of 18 kilometres and a width of 3 kilometres.
Located west of Puerto Rio Tranquilo, it’s a two and half hour-drive each way on a gravel road. To reach the lookout there’s a well-marked interpretive trail through pine forests. A 30 minute walk ends with a short steep hill, in the middle of the forest, where you reach an incredible viewpoint of the glacier and of mount San Valentín. Try to take this trip on a clear sunny day as when there are low clouds the view will be less ’incredible’.
If you want to reach the actual glacier it’s a significant 10 hour return trip. You must have appropriate equipment and a guide.
3. Patagonia National Park
Kristine & Douglas Tomkins formed Conservation Patagonia, Tomkins Conservation and the Conservation Land Trust. In 2004 the Trust bought a loss making 170,000 acre Estancia in the Chacabuco Valley. Their intention was to return the land to its natural state and eventually to make the area a National Park – for all to enjoy. 13 years later (2017) that goal was realised when Patagonia Park was legally finalised. It now forms part of a much larger park area (722,000 acres) that links Jeinemeni in the north and Tamango National Park in the South; effectively creating a corridor.
Once the sheep, cattle and the fences were removed the natural vegetation quickly recovered as did the populations of guanaco and the endangered Huemel deer. The Guanaco are particularly important for the local puma population, being their main prey species. Whilst seeing puma is rare you should see guanaco, Culepo foxes, Chilean flamingos, black-necked swans, viscacha and if the weather conditions are right Andean condor. The park is also worth visiting for the variety and beauty of its stunning landscapes. There is a visitor centre and a very comfortable Lodge (Valle Chacabuco), which would be an excellent base from which to explore the park whether by vehicle or on one of the many well marked walking trails.
The same foundation owns Estancia Rincon del Socorro in the Ibera Marshlands in northern Argentina.
4. Baker River & the ‘Confluencia’
The Baker River’s colour is hard to imagine – like General Carrera lake – it’s turquoise blue alluvial waters are remarkable. A drive along the road next to the Baker will have you stopping on numerous occasions to take pictures of its amazing waters. It’s worth venturing the 30kms to the ‘el Confluencia’ the confluence of the Baker and Neff rivers.
The rapids over which numerous hundreds of thousands of litres of turquoise blue water pour are spectacle enough. In addition to the waterfall the confluence of the of the ‘grey’ waters of the Neff river and the turquoise waters of the Baker making the twenty minute hike down to ‘el Confleuncia’ worth every step. As is the case with most of this region the backdrop on snow-capped Andean mountains simply adds to the spectacle.
Mallin Colorado – stunning views across Lake General Carrera and on private estate offering horse rides as well as walks and treks from the lodge. Most of the cabins offer twin/double accommodation set a short distance away from the main lodge.
El Mirador Guadal – Mountain views across lake General Carrera. Each cabin is its own oasis, again simple and rustic with a small wood burning fire/heater; one which I have just stoked, as today the clouds have rolled in and I’ve had the first rain of my time in the region I decided it was best to enjoy the cosy warmth of my cabin.
It’s definitely an area that needs time, time to afford getting from one place to another (given dirt roads) and time to allow for a day like today – where it’s great to enjoy being in a warm cabin as the rain clouds sweep across the distant mountains. That time would also mean you can take the excursion that is most suited to the day’s weather.
The options for exploring are vast. You can choose to be very active as there are numerous treks of varying durations and levels, as well as fishing, kayaking and horse riding. For the more adventurous there is a jet boat trip up the Baker River. Or you can take any number of drives to places of incredible beauty – or a little of both.
The sun is again lighting up the turquoise blue Lake General Carrerra and the mountains in the distance are emerging from their dark-grey shroud so it is time to leave the warm lodge and head off to further explore the incredible beauty of this less visited area of Chile.
The next morning produced a cloud free sky which afforded beautiful views of the snow-capped mountains.
Read more about travelling in Chile
The word ‘desert’ usually conjures images of dust, sand and rocks, cactus and scuttling creatures and, while the Atacama Desert in northern Chile has all of the above, it also offers many unexpected surprises. Forget your preconceived ideas of a barren desert environment – Atacama is bursting with exceptional experiences just waiting for you to discover....
I had quite a few activities on my wish list for my time spent in Chile, but horse riding in Patagonia through the remarkable landscape was at the top. On my last day in Chile at Tierra Patagonia I made this wish a reality....